This was going to be his year. At last, Christian Vande Velde, the leader of Boulder's Garmin-Slipstream Pro Cycling Team, would break away at this month's Tour de France. And then it happened—again.
Four years earlier, four a.m., and he was the only one awake in a house thousands of miles from his home in the States. The sun was about to rise over the city of Girona, Spain, but Christian Vande Velde was in the dark—and had given up hope of a new day. As far as the then 29-year-old was concerned, his once promising career was over. He picked up the phone and dialed the seemingly endless string of digits to make an international call. Eight time zones away in Denver, his friend picked up the phone. It was Jonathan Vaughters, Vande Velde's buddy and former colleague.
"Hey man," Vande Velde said. "We gotta talk."
"OK, Christian," Vaughters said. "What are we going to talk about?"
Vande Velde told Vaughters that he wanted to discuss a job. But, really, no one calls his friend across two continents and an ocean in the dark predawn hours to chat about something as mundane as a job, certainly not Christian Vande Velde—the consummate professional, the Midwestern guy who, on talent alone, should have never needed to ask someone for work. Vande Velde, you see, was a thoroughbred with a pedigree. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, his father, John, had raced his bike in two Olympics, and as a teenager Vande Velde had been one of the most promising young cyclists in the United States, beating kids on the track that were older, stronger, and more mature than he was. He won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Argentina in 1995. When he finally signed a pro contract, in 1998, it was with the United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, a squad comprised of a bunch of guys who didn't yet know how good they were, guys with names like George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Frankie Andreu, Jonathan Vaughters, and Lance Armstrong.
No, this call wasn't really about a job—although Vande Velde asked if he could be in charge of Vaughters' young Colorado-based cycling team, and Vaughters said, Yeah, sure, if you really want it, you can have the gig. No, this call was about giving it all up. Not yet 30 years old, Vande Velde was a journeyman, a veteran of three professional teams, who had not lived up to his promise. He was racing against guys he knew he could beat—and he was losing. Even worse, he was hurting. Countless crashes had left him a twisted shell of himself, a rider whose banged-up body wouldn't allow him to tap into his God-given talent. He was frustrated, pissed. He had a wife he loved, and he had his family back in the States, and it wasn't worth all the sacrifice anymore—the 100 days of racing every year, the physical fatigue, the persistent illnesses, the flat-out suffering, the sport's ongoing and high-profile doping scandals. No, this call wasn't about a job. It was about saying good-bye to everything he had worked for.
Like so many athletes, Vande Velde ran hot and cold: One moment he saw himself as unbeatable and indestructible. The next, he looked in the mirror and saw a failure. Vaughters understood the psychology: He had learned Vande Velde's idiosyncrasies when the two were teammates, but now, on the phone, he had to be more than a teammate. He had to pull his friend back from the edge. "Don't make this decision in a moment of weakness," Vaughters told him. "Don't make this decision tonight—not at four o'clock in the morning, not halfway through the season. Because, if you leave, man, it's for good."